Charting Fashion and Style in Downton Abbey Costumes

Charting Fashion and Style in Downton Abbey Costumes

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Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar have brought US and UK TV series to Indian dinner table discussions. The TV series and movie buffs eagerly await the upcoming seasons of popular and critically acclaimed series. Discussions ensue around the season’s plot, characters, plausible story development and its glorious frames, costumes, make-up and hairstyles. Especially if the shows and movies are based on period. Among the notable Period Dramas that have come and gone, nothing has captured the world’s imagination like Downton Abbey for the lovers of British culture. 

downton abbey

The series, set in the fictional Yorkshire country estate of Downton Abbey between 1912 and 1926, depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants in the post-Edwardian era—with the great events in history affecting their lives and the British social hierarchy. Aside from the intrigue, one of the most applauded and acclaimed aspects of the drama was the Edwardian costumes on display. 

Downton Abbey Mary
Downton Abbey Movie

Edwardian Fashion refers to clothing that was in fashion during the beginning of the Great World War. Also called La Belle Epoque (the Beautiful Era), and the Gilded Age, this was a time when women’s fashions took on a new opulence and extravagance, inspired by the hedonistic lifestyle of Britain’s King Edward VII. The design trends of the Edwardian era revolved around the S curve when corsets created an S-shaped female silhouette, a change from the Victorian hourglass figure. The S bend corset forced the hips back and bust forward.

edwardian fashion
Edwardian Fashion

The costumes in Downton Abbey and the characters that wore them conveyed a great deal about the life and personality of the character. Edwardian times were known for strict adherence to social rank, this was reflected in the series that matched the costumes with the social rank of the wearer. 

downton abbey fashion

The Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley played by the impeccable Maggie Smith was always seen wearing extravagant hats with many feathers which literally indicated how she has many feathers in her hat, being her social birth, social rank, her wit and her sass. 

dowager countess
violet crawley
downton abbey

Countess of Grantham, Cora Crawley played by Elizabeth McGovern had a tasteful and subtle style. The character is shown to be American born, therefore her style was not restricted, many of her gowns showed skin. For evening and dinner parties, her costumes were blingy with intricate embroidery on the hemlines and trims. Being a mother and the soft emotional spot in the whole series, her outfits were in subdued shades along with feminine drapes.

lady grantham
downton abbey style
lady grantham

One cannot talk about Downton Abbey’s costume without mentioning Lady Sybil, played by Jessica Brown Findlay’s iconic harem pants. Susannah Buxton, a costume designer for ITV’s popular period drama, explains to The Telegraph  “Women realised that they couldn’t stride out in those narrow skirts,” she says. “There’s a shift away from the heavily corseted figure to a slim, more boyish shape, with relaxed high waists, a looser fit and shorter, slightly flared skirts for young girls. The only good thing to come out of the First World War was women’s ankles.”

Lady Isobel and Lady Edith are often shown frumpy, but only because fashion is the last thing on their mind. In season six, Lady Edith is shown trim and tailored, she’s finally found her purpose as the editor and manager of her own magazine. 

lady crawley

lady crawley downton abbey
lady edith
lady edith peacock dress

Lady Mary, played by Michelle Dockery has an air of snob, her costumes reflect that aura too. She makes bold choices, not as a part of a revolution but because she can.  Whether it’s chopping her long waves into a Roaring ’20s bob to match her higher hemlines or donning a tweed jacket to run the estate with her brother in law, Tom Branson, Lady Mary shifts from elegant gowns to corseted dresses without any difficulty. 

Lady Mary
lady mary costume
lady mary wedding gown

Emmy award-winning costume designer Anna Robins who joined the production from season five, in an interview with Vogue said “Her wardrobe is quite linear and androgynous. I studied lots of fashion plates and men’s tailoring from the period, which inspired some of the more structured outfits she wears when she’s running the “estate”. She’s a girl in a man’s world, but she’s doing it her way. Her colour scheme tends to be quite bold – deep burgundies and navy blues that would never suit the other characters.”

lady mary

The era also witnessed the birth of the modern suit, unlike in recent times when lapels are longer to portray a slimmer figure, during that era the lapels were short and the jackets had a very high cut. Dinner jackets included white-tie suits strictly, who could forget the moment when Dowager Countess mistakes the Earl of Grantham for a waiter because he was not dressed in a black-tie!

downton abbey

Apart from the dinner fashion, most of the men wore subdued and muted colours to not clash with the era. Another thing to notice is how the suits changed in minute ways when the characters were involved in an activity. If they were holding shotguns, the suits were sporty in terms of an added belt and large pockets. If you notice closely, the ties have always been pristine with basic patterns to add to the gentleman effect. 

downton abbey hunting

Talking about fashion downstairs, it might look that the servants had the least exciting costumes ever, but that’s far from the truth. 

Mrs Hughes, played by Phyllis Logan was dressed what we call now “the power suit” Instead of a suit, it’s a dress and it’s black. From the first episode to the last, Mrs Hughes has only worn black to for her workday, most of the outfits had intricate trims including lace or embroidery to depict that she earns more than the other servants. 

mrs hughes
mrs hughes

For Anna Bates, nothing ever goes right. The audience has her side throughout the drama, her muted colour choices even off-day works are dull and sad, making her look just minutes away from breaking down.  It’s the job of her eyes and smiles to show how her spirit is indestructible. 

anna downton

Talking about Daisy, played by Sophie McShera, the character is shown to be hardworking first and a child later.Therefore, the plaids and practicality of her fashion choices reflect in her easy to move attires. Plaids and collars in both blouse and skirts make her look that she is in the middle of something important, always, but she’s also quite young so Daisy is drawn to a bit of flair as well with pleating and smart collars.

While a large majority of the costumes were either real garments from the period or costumes recycled from other period programs, some of them were created on the spot for the characters. With so many characters and fashion changes throughout the seasons, it’s hard to choose one’s favourite fashion moment, isn’t it? 

Who is your favourite dapper Downton Abbey character ?

Himanshi Saboo
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